High-profile international lawyer Jennifer Robinson devoted her career to defending human rights after a life-changing study exchange to Indonesia, writes TABITHA CARVAN.
At 31, Jennifer Robinson has already notched up several lifetimes’ worth of achievement.
Best known as legal adviser to Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, Robinson is also Adjunct Lecturer in Law at the University of Sydney, Director of Legal Advocacy for the Bertha Foundation, and a passionate advocate for self-determination and human rights in West Papua. Most recently, she received one of the inaugural ANU Young Alumnus of the Year awards [read more on page 18].
Robinson says she can trace the trajectory of her career back to her time as a law and Asian studies student at ANU. She graduated with a University Medal in law, the Distinguished Scholar Award for Asian Studies, and soon left for Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. But it’s not this brilliant academic record with which she credits her success; it’s the year she spent on exchange in Indonesia as part of her undergraduate degree.
“It was one of the most exciting and challenging experiences of my life. It was completely lifechanging,” she says.
As a 21-year-old student, Robinson travelled to West Papua and worked with local activists on high-profile human rights cases, sparking an enduring interest in the cause of West Papuan independence.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that more Australians aren’t aware of what’s happening in West Papua because I think most Australians are rather proud of Australia’s role in the humanitarian intervention in East Timor, but so few realise what’s happening in West Papua, which is remarkably similar to what happened in East Timor.
“West Papua was illegally annexed by Indonesia. They suffer widespread human rights abuse and discrimination; their land’s being taken; there’s exploitation by multinational corporations. And this is 300 kilometres north of Australia.”
When Robinson’s time in Indonesia was cut short by the 2002 Bali bombings, she says she was unable to return immediately to Australia or her studies.
“I was so unbelievably affected by what I’d seen in West Papua, I found it impossible to come back to Canberra straight away and I actually deferred my degree for a year and went travelling.
“It was very difficult to come back to the Australian community having worked so closely with West Papuan victims, seeing first-hand the impact of Indonesian military violence on a community and actually feeling really guilty about being forced to leave because of the Bali bombing.
“I couldn’t even relate to my friends after that experience. But it gave me a renewed sense of commitment to my studies to have had that year out and I came back to ANU and finished my degree with flying colours.
“It made me a passionate activist for the rights of lawyers to be able to do their job, and for the rights of controversial clients to have representation. I guess that’s probably what’s driven me to stick by Julian despite the controversies and despite the risk to myself.”
Robinson was introduced to Assange by fellow human rights advocate and mentor, Geoffrey Robertson QC, while working in London in 2010.
While Assange is currently seeking asylum from within the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Robinson says she remains in regular contact with him.
“I feel so strongly about what WikiLeaks is doing because information was released throughWikiLeaks that sheds light on what’s happening in West Papua and it is so unusual to get coverage of West Papua in the media and to actually get the facts of what’s happening on the ground because journalists are banned.
“WikiLeaks gave us information about what was going on there that previously had not hit the press and for me that was incredibly important.”
Although based in London, Robinson returns to Australia regularly to teach and to represent Assange’s current position to the Government. When at Parliament House, she says, she doesn’t pass up the opportunity to advocate for West Papua too.
“I think the Australian Government has been incredibly reactive and too scared to raise legitimate human rights concerns with respect to Indonesia because they’re concerned about what it might do to the relationship.
“The Australian Government has to be strong in weathering that criticism because it’s inappropriate for us to be spending taxpayer funds in funding forces which are committing human rights abuse; the Australian Government ought to be taking that seriously.”
With her many hats, Robinson says for the next few years she’ll predominantly focus on her work with the Bertha Foundation, developing a program to encourage young lawyers to use their skills for the public good and social justice.
“I’m really excited about the opportunity to inspire the next generation of human rights lawyers,” she says.
“Why be one human rights lawyer when you can inspire a whole new generation?” And there is no one better placed than the inspirational Robinson to set an example of how one person can make a big difference in the world.
Video: Jennifer Robinson talks about West Papua.